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The 73rd edition of the Formula 1 World Championship begins this weekend in the Persian Gulf with the Bahraini Grand Prix, the first of twenty-two to be raced between now and November 20 in twenty different countries around the world. It is the most anticipated season for many years now, because after the end of the so-called era of turbo-hybrid engines, the introduction of the new technical regulation marks the beginning of a new era for Formula 1, already at the center of great and renewed interest.
Furthermore, the regulatory changes come in the wake of a season finale, the past one, marked by the close and spectacular rivalry between Mercedes and Red Bull, carried out with doors and twists until the last lap of the last race in calendar. After four years, the reigning world champion is no longer Lewis Hamilton, but Max Verstappen, whose victory was both celebrated and criticized for race management meddling over the course of the season – and in particular in the last Grand Prix.
Mercedes lost the drivers ‘title but kept the constructors’ title. In this way it has at least maintained the undisputed dominance among manufacturers in the era of turbo-hybrid engines. Despite this, the final victory of Red Bull did not go down, as we could understand from the words of team principal Toto Wolff, who in the final episode of the Netflix series Drive to Survive it was quite clear: «Lewis did everything necessary to win the World Championship. The title was stolen from them and they couldn’t have done better to motivate us. Everyone will have a target on their back next year. ” Many believe that the recent removal of the disputed race director Michael Masi was requested and obtained by Mercedes.
The main novelty
Compared to last season the cars have changed profoundly. The main novelty concerns the aerodynamic load, that is the ability to generate the force that increases grip on the asphalt during the race. The so-called ground effect has returned to exploit – as it was used until the early 1980s – through the use of grooved bottoms (the so-called Venturi channels) which act as if they were “suckers” on the asphalt. The choice of the ground effect was dictated by the search for more competitive races open to as many results as possible, with fewer interruptions and a higher level of safety.
The ground effect has in fact replaced the old way in which Formula 1 cars produced aerodynamic load, i.e. superficially, with increasingly complex ailerons and appendages mounted on the bodywork that kept the cars fixed to the ground, generating high turbulence flows ( “Dirty air”, in jargon). In the race, however, these flows disturbed the cars in the queue, reducing the aerodynamic load by almost 50 percent, and therefore the stability and in the long run also the set-up. All this made overtaking more difficult, but not only: in the event of contact these appendages, especially those mounted on the front wings, frequently broke causing damage to the cars and punctures, and therefore continuous interruptions and often chaotic restarts (which helped to influence the outcome from last season).
What else has changed
Other innovations include the use of a new fuel containing 10 per cent of biocomponents (compared to 5.75 per cent last year). The machines will need to demonstrate greater strength and absorb 48 and 15 percent more energy in front and rear impacts, respectively. The ailerons will be unique pieces, with the so-called flap inserted in the muzzle and no longer hooked. The wheels will be less sensitive to temperatures, larger and narrower – with 45cm and no more 33cm rims – to aid aerodynamics and maneuverability.
To complicate matters, there will also be spending limits: the teams will have an annual ceiling set at 140 million dollars (about 118 million dolars), with a progressive reduction to 135 million from 2023 onwards. The salaries of the pilots, the expenses for marketing and the salaries of the three most important executives are excluded from the calculation.
The effects of the changes
All the teams have started to design the new cars from scratch, each following their own skills and resources, which will still make a difference, but probably in a less marked way than in the past. According to the regulation, some components must be the same for everyone, while others, such as the aerodynamic parts – that is, the most changed – have been developed freely. Consequently, the cars seen so far are all very different from each other, they have not yet stopped changing their appearance and will do so continuously even late in the season, as explained by Nikolas Tombazis, the technical manager of the International Federation: “With the new regulation it is inevitable that there may be some areas that have not been foreseen correctly in terms of flexibility, and this may require improvements in the course of work ».
Teams like Red Bull and Mercedes have revealed what should be their set-up at the start of the season only on the last day of testing. And they changed them again in view of the first free practice sessions in Bahrain. Others, on the other hand, were able to “sacrifice” last season to focus longer on new projects, and presented themselves to tests with cars less subject to upheavals.
With the track tests carried out in the last few weeks, the first problems to be solved inevitably arose. The technical changes have reduced the average speed of the cars by a few seconds per lap compared to last year, also due to the minimum weight allowed without fuel, which went from 740 kilos in 2019 to 798 kilos this season. The pilots also reported greater exposure to gusts of wind.
On the track, the problem that required more interventions, and which in most cases has not yet been completely resolved, is the so-called aerodynamic rebound (or porpoising), one of the undesirable consequences of returning to the ground effect. The grooves on the bottom of the machines, in fact, as the speed increases, bring the bottom closer to the ground. In spikes in speed, cars can get to touch it, and in response they start swinging uncomfortably up and down, so much so that many have joked that teams may need dentists for their drivers.
Teams, pilots, colors
The teams participating in the World Cup remained ten, each with the usual two drivers. The development of the engines has been frozen for the whole season, and the manufacturers are the same as last year: there is only one significant change. Red Bull and Alpha Tauri, the two stables owned by the Austrian multinational of energy drinks, will no longer use official Honda engines, but will produce them themselves while continuing to use the Japanese company’s technologies.
As for the drivers, however, there have been several changes. After four years at Mercedes, Finn Valtteri Bottas moved to Sauber-Alfa Romeo, where he will team up with the first Chinese driver in the history of the championship, Zhou Guanyu. Bottas’ place at Mercedes was given to Briton George Russell, who until last year at Williams and considered one of the most promising young drivers in Formula 1. Williams replaced him with former Red Bull driver Alexander Albon.
The other stables have kept their guides, only with some last minute changes. Haas terminated the contract of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and replaced him by recalling Dane Kevin Magnussen, who will then team up with Mick Schumacher for the duration of the season. Aston Martin, on the other hand, had to temporarily replace Sebastian Vettel, positive for coronavirus, by calling German Nico Hülkenberg for the first race of the season.
The sponsors continue to have an important weight in the prospects of each team, and are looking with interest both at the new regulation and at the moment of global growth of Formula 1. A few days before the start of the World Championship, for example, McLaren has closed an agreement multi-year with Google, whose colors are already present on the liveries of British cars. Remaining among the big tech companies, the American Oracle is the new main partner of Red Bull.
The British Aston Martin, owned by Canadian millionaire Lawrence Stroll, has as a new sponsor the Saudi national hydrocarbon company Saudi Aramco, which is already a sponsor of Formula 1 and in 2018 was the company that recorded the most profit in the world: 111 billion dollars, more than 98 billion dolars. Finally, Mercedes has returned to its traditional gray color, after the black used in the last two years in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
What has been seen in the tests
Although what we have seen in the last tests is only vaguely indicative of the balance of power between the teams – between laps made with more or less empty tanks, empty tracks and different tires – it can be said that some teams will start the season in at least better situations. , and Ferrari also seems to be among these.
Red Bull was among the best in testing in Bahrain, if not the first. It was constant, it didn’t have any major problems and indeed, it was among the teams that had less trouble with the aerodynamic rebound, a problem that Ferrari had to manage instead. Despite this, it has been among the most consistent in Bahrain and the signs shown so far suggest that the gap from last season’s two best teams, Red Bull and Mercedes, may have narrowed further.
As for Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton described the situation as follows: «At the moment I don’t think we can compete for the win. We are not the fastest. I think Ferrari is, maybe Red Bull and then maybe us or McLaren, I don’t know ». Even in their latest updated version, the German cars showed some signs of difficulty both in the corners, with frequent blockages and understeer, and in the fast parts with the widespread problem of rebounds.
Among the surprises there was instead Alfa Romeo, which despite having had several problems, when it did it with rather low times, also thanks to the good impression made by the new drivers. There is also a lot of attention for Haas, the small American-owned team powered and aided by Ferrari, which after a disastrous season in 2021 aims to do much better in 2022, thanks to a car it has been working on for a long time. Among those who have had the most difficulties, however, are Williams, Aston Martin and McLaren. The latter had major problems with the cooling of the brakes which limited its stay on the track. Furthermore, only Lando Norris raced in Bahrain of his two drivers: Daniel Ricciardo tested positive for coronavirus and will run almost blindly at the first Grand Prix of the season.
As in the previous season, there will be twenty-two races, in twenty different countries. He will return to racing in Japan, Australia, Canada and Singapore after two years of absence due to complications related to the pandemic. For the same reasons, China was again excluded. Compared to the last World Cup, it will not take place in Portugal, Turkey and Qatar. Formula 1 will not even return to Russia, having terminated the contract with the Sochi circuit in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the Miami Grand Prix will make its debut. Italy, together with the United States, will be the only country to host two races: April 24 in Imola and September 11 in Monza.
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